Virtual Reality has been one of those dreams which, like time travel or the lightsaber, was never born of necessity or ingenuity. We wanted it before we thought it was possible and we still don’t know how to really use it. But we saw The Lawnmower Man (or, probably, The Matrix) and we just wanted it.
Now that VR is a reality in the sense that the technology works well enough to get people worked up about it, I just want to establish a little dialogue between this and the last great innovation: motion controls. How quickly we forget.
The debut of the Wii had very little to do with gamers. It was a convergence of the dreams of normal people who wished they were gamers, and a quiet revolution in the takeover of the console market by those people. Simulated bowling and resort fishing and weight training were the games that established and sold the Wii. Remember, just for context, that the GameCube one generation prior was built by titles like Metroid Prime and Star Wars: Rogue Squadron II. Then the Wii comes out and all the gaming ads start to look like spreads from Home and Garden or display showrooms at IKEA.
I want to point out that the Wii motion controls were barely even real: the motions available to the controller numbered about as many as the buttons on the controller (less, probably). Vertical and horizontal swipe, twist, point and click. As many of us more sedentary folk have discovered, playing Wii Bowling does not in any way require the standing, full-bodied motion implied by the action on screen, and which your auntie probably insists on doing every time. A flick of the wrist will do – the whole scheme, the idea of the motion analogy, is really just an illusion.
Of course, Wii Motion Plus aimed to fix some of that but that’s not where we are with VR. We’re at Wii Bowling.
I see surgery simulator and cashier simulator games and mini-game collections and I can’t help but think of the Wii. Like Nintendo’s little white box that could, VR is making a promise that it hopes will replace the need to design real video games. In this case, the promise is: immersion.
But that was the promise with motion controls, remember? The problem is that immersion is a shortening and a nearness – the less mental distance between what you want to do and the action provides the most immersion. Pushing a button on a controller is immersion at its apex because of how nearly equivalent it makes the thought impulse and the input response.
VR, of course, lengthens this distance. For the sake of visual immersion, the act of using your whole body to control a game is being presented as some kind of aesthetic leap forward. I know that Minecraft in VR will make me barf but that’s a personal problem. What I’m curious to know is if Resident Evil 7: Biohazard provides the scares in VR that could make the tech worth the drop, inevitable and certain, in the quality of the gameplay. You just cannot play a game like Dark Souls or The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in VR, unless you also have a controller.
So maybe as a gaming supplement VR will be an interesting novelty. Some things truly are scarier if you’re seeing them in full view. But keeping the traditional controller intact is essential to the core gaming experience, as motion controls dating back to the Virtual Boy have continued to teach us. It may be just because this high profile tech stuff attracts third party developers to make games for your aunt and not for you, or it may be an inherent limitation of the medium. But VR simply cannot work as it promises to, and has continued to promise since the days of the full-body flight simulator arcade machines.
Regardless, I’m curious to see where it goes, even if I’m pretty sure it’s history we’ve written before.